Monday 22 January 2018

Diarmuid Gavin: Small wonder... trees for a small garden

Help the environment while structuring your outdoor space with my pick of trees for the small garden

Cercis canadensis 'Forest Pansy'
Cercis canadensis 'Forest Pansy'

Diarmuid Gavin

Every gardener loves planting trees. That's the moment you can feel you're making a real contribution to a better environment, both locally and globally.

As part of my job I've planted thousands, and each time it feels like a worthwhile thing to be doing. Depending on the species chosen, trees are there for the long haul. Some reach old age after 20 odd years, while others can last generations, contributing throughout their lives in many positive ways, from the production of oxygen, cleaning up toxins, binding soil together in vulnerable landscapes, slowing down flood water so it can be absorbed into the soil, creating habitats for birds, bees and insects, or simply by looking beautiful.

And now that we are beginning to build much-needed houses again, it's worth considering the role that trees play within our smaller, man-made landscapes. Whether it's our private gardens or street trees, it's this garden contribution which will result in new leafy suburbs once the new plants are established and begin to mature.

Autumn and winter make good planting times, so if you are considering adding some height to an existing landscape or beginning a new one, start the planning process now.

All plants breathe the life into a garden, and every level of planting has a role to play, like layers of a cake - the perennials for colour, contrast and filling the spaces in the soil; the shrubs to create boundaries and structure, to mask unsightly things and to frame others; and the trees to add the final dimension - to draw the outline, to create cover and focal points like nothing else can do.

When you look at your garden and imagine a journey through the space, you can almost feel where the trees should be. Trees are the punctuation points that tell your eyes where to stop and rest and signpost where to look next and they are also the guardians that also enclose the space. As they will be there for years beyond yours to enchant future generations, it's important to make the best choice possible.

With any plant it is extremely important to choose a suitable species that will be able to grow happily in your garden's habitat without the need for your intervention. It is unrealistic for most people to have to apply a special type of feed every few months for the entire life of a tree, particularly when there are so many beautiful tree species to choose from.

Explore your site and your soil and select something that you know will mature into a great specimen. The other big factor is space. The eventual height and spread of a tree needs to be known before you plant it, even more so if you intend to position it in your front garden or near the house. You have a responsibility to ensure that the tree will not become a danger to the general public (branches could fall onto pedestrians as they walk by or even onto the road), that it will not start to undermine the foundations of the house, or that it won't take over your garden. You have nothing to worry about if you are armed with the right information.

Once your trees are mature, it is a good idea to check on them every autumn when the leaves have fallen to see if there are any dead or damaged branches that could be a danger to those around the area.

Here are five trees that I recommend for the small suburban garden:

1 Cercis canadensis 'Forest Pansy'

Also known as the Eastern Redbud (pictured), this is the State tree of Oklahoma. Gorgeous magenta pink flowers open in great profusion on bare stems in spring followed by wonderful heart-shaped leaves in reddish, purplish wine colours, followed by a colourful autumnal display. Its eventual height will be about 25 feet. Plant as a stand-alone specimen to be admired.

2 Styrax japonica (Japanese snowbell)

Laden with very pretty, fragrant white bell-shape flowers in spring, this is a tree whose show is best admired from underneath; so, for example, a bench placed underneath this tree would be an ideal viewing spot in the early summer. Prefers a sheltered spot, eventual height and spread around 25 feet.

3 Cornus controversa 'Variegata' (Wedding-cake tree)

This is a lovely "centre of the lawn" tree. Branches grow in a layered fashion, similar to the tiers of a wedding cake, giving rise to its common name. Leaves are green with creamy-white margins, turning yellow in the autumn.

4 Crateagus laevigata 'Paul's Scarlet'

This is a compact hawthorn tree which is covered in crimson red flowers in the late spring and early summer.

5 Acer griseum (Paper bark maple)

You'll never tire of the wonderful coppery peeling park of this maple. In addition, it puts on a good autumn display of red and orange. It is always a delight to come across this specimen.

Branch out

With any plant it is extremely important to choose a suitable species that will be able to grow happily in your garden's natural habitat without the need for your intervention.

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